District planning to address upper bench drainage issue

Trent Ernst, Editor

(Note: This is an updated version of what was published in the paper.)

The District of Tumbler Ridge has finally decided what it is going to do about the drainage issues on the upper bench.

Nothing.

Which is what the District has been doing in the past, but by next month, it should be official.

More importantly, if the motion passes, it will mean that people who live in the affected area won’t be able to do anything, either.

At the October 11 Policies and Priorities meeting, Council moved to instate a moratorium on back yard development “which may cause drainage issues to be exasperated or disturb the underground springs.” That motion is expected to be passed at a regular meeting of Council before the year is over. 

Houses along the farthest upper slope along the upper bench (being the houses on the east sides of Gwillim, Sukunka, Murray and Wapiti) have serious drainage issues, as underground streams coming down from the ridge east of Highway 52 run around, and sometimes through, people’s houses.

These drainage issues, says Building Services Manager Ken Klikach in a report to council, are being exacerbated by resident construction in the area.

“Original geotechnical assessments in 1982 for water and soil conditions in the area recommended that back yards near the property line be left in a natural state,” he writes. “This was again confirmed in 2002 when the District had AMCE Geotechnical dig test holes and review the complete area between Gwillim and the Highway 52 bypass. AMCE came up with the same results and recommended that the area remain undisturbed. Further to these reports Harder Geotechnical was employed by the District in 2012 to confirm the possibility of correcting drainage problems.”

In 2013, the District looked at what it would cost to resolve these issues. At the time, it was estimated the cost would be $1.35 million, plus $16,000 for each home owner to installing sump pumps, drain tile, rock and filter materials. “Additional repairs to driveways, sidewalks, stairs, decks and basement floors could add another $25,000 or more,” says Klikach, adding that “there is no guarantee this work would fix the problem as the only available solution does not have a solid track record of success.”

This is not the first time this area has been an issue. The District constructed a drainage swale along the back of the properties in the past but, Klikach says, “home owners in the area have picked away in these areas and the swale is mostly compromised.”

The trouble, says Klikach, is when people work on the back of their property or behind their property, it can change the way the ground water moves through the area. Often, this won’t affect their property directly, but can affect the properties next to them. “Retaining walls will only add to the existing problem and should not be installed.”

Currently the District is not liable for the situation that exists in these areas, he says. However, “should the District attempt to fix this problem or allow the construction of retaining walls, buildings, or expanding in the rear of the property or be involved in a drainage project in this area will place the District in a liability position for term specified in the Government Act.”

District CEO Jordan Wall says there have been three geotechnical reports, and all three reports recommend the natural drainage not be disturbed. “What staff is recommending is to stop development up there as it can cause significant damage.”

This doesn’t mean, he says, that any disturbances would have to be reset. If a home owner has already developed something like a retaining wall, they are grandfathered in. However, this work has been done outside of the District’s building code and any problems it causes are on the back of the homeowner.

This is becoming an issue, says Klikach, as people who live in these affected areas are approaching the District asking to build things like garages and retaining walls. He says he hasn’t been able to give them an answer or a permit. “If I issue a permit with these geotechnical reports being available, then I put the District in a position where they are liable. Right now, the building inspector is in a dire position,” he says.

People have, in the past, built walls and garages and done other work that has changed the way water moves through the area.

He says if a home owner does do or has done something to disturb the drainage and problems arise, it will be up to the people involved to figure it out. “There are areas that have problems now, and in the past, it wasn’t clear there would be problems. Underground streams can change.”

What if the homeowners decide to sue the District for restricting their ability to build on their property? Wall says under Canadian law the District has the authority to regulate things like this. “If you have regulatory power, people cannot sue you as long as there is a basis for action. We have these three reports that give us a basis for action.”

The motion came before Council earlier this fall, but was sent back to staff, as some members of Council found the original proposal too broad. One of those was Councillor Will Howe. Howe says he’s not disagreeing that something needs to be done, he just didn’t like “the loose-goody nature” of the proposal. “We need to define this. If we set a house number on this side and a house number on that side, we know what are the exact areas that nobody can dig into.”

Councillor Joanne Kirby says she’s worried about the homeowners that aren’t affected by the ground water issues, but might be affected by this bylaw. “You’re not going to make everyone happy, but down the road, this could be the best thing to do.”

Here is a complete list of properties affected by this moratorium.

Gwillim Crescent: Lots 112, 116, 120, 124, 128, 132, 136, 140, 144, 148, 152, 156, 160, 164, 168, 172, 176, 180, 184, 188, 192, 196, 200, 204, 208, 212, 216, 220, 224, 228, 232, 236, 240, 244, 248, 252, 256 and 260.

Murray Drive: Lots 228 and 232.

Sukunka Place: Lots 24, 28, 32, 36, 40, 44, 48, 52 and 56

Wapiti Crescent: Lots 144, 148, 152, 156, 160, 164, 176, 16, 20, 24, 28, 188, 192, 198, 200, 204, 208, 212, 216, 216, 220 and 224.